UN secretary-general dialogues: Did anyone come out on top?

By Jenny Lei Ravelo 18 April 2016

A view of the Trusteeship Council Chamber where the United Nations General Assembly holds informal dialogues with the candidates for the next U.N. Secretary-General. Photo by: Rick Bajornas / U.N.

United Nations member states didn’t hesitate in giving the nine official candidates vying for the position of U.N. chief their toughest job interview to date last week.

In the three-day publicly broadcasted informal dialogues, the nine secretary-general candidates answered a slew of questions — approximately 800 of them, collectively, according to the 1 for 7 Billion Campaign — ranging from their would-be policy concerning the alleged sexual abuse cases within the U.N.’s peacekeeping operations to concrete reform plans for the secretariat they’re hoping to lead.

Popular were questions on gender parity in terms of staffing, particularly in senior positions, as well as how the candidates plan to have a more balanced geographical representation at the global body — a recurring ask among member states from a number of developing nations.

Given the strong push for a woman to lead the intergovernmental organization, all male candidates felt the need to pad their platforms or, as Mark Leon Goldberg of U.N. Dispatch put it, make a show of their “feminist credentials,” with promises of more women representation in key senior U.N. positions, some including appointing a woman as their deputy secretary-general.

Serbia’s official candidate Vuk Jeremić went as far as saying he’d be happy to name his choice for deputy secretary-general ahead of the election.

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Some member states asked about evidence of candidates’ crisis management and managerial leadership and whether they have plans of moving the needle on U.N. Security Council reform — a task beyond the scope of the position. A secretary-general can open and propose reform measures on the council, but changes require a two-thirds majority vote from U.N. member states and ratification of the reform by each member state’s parliament or congress for it to succeed.

Secretary-general candidate and former Macedonian Foreign Minister Srgjan Kerim shut down a Security Council question when, after being pressed on the issue, he told member states that “reform can only be advanced to the extent member states are ready to do it.”

“I see it as states/countries that want to be on the Security Council, want Security Council reform, or consider Security Council reform to be a top priority just want to go on the record and wanted to put the secretary-general on the record stating his or her position one way or the other,” Goldberg, who was among those who followed the discussions, told Devex as the sessions concluded Thursday.

Japan, whose representatives repeatedly raised the issue, is part of the “Group of Four,” which also includes Brazil, Germany and India, that have been pushing for the U.N. Security Council reform for decades now in the hopes of snagging a seat at the permanent member’s table.

Personality

The informal dialogue format is unprecedented in the history of the U.N. — and meant to give member states and the wider public a better grasp of some of the contenders’ visions and concrete plans.

But some members of civil society found the process was too managed: “We felt that it would have been even better if questions could come from the floor, with the chance to react to answer and greater interaction,” Danny Sriskandarajah, secretary-general of CIVICUS, told Devex.

And others, according to Executive Director of the United Nations Association – U.K. and co-founder of the 1 for 7 Billion Campaign Natalie Samarasinghe, worry that the world will end up with a secretary-general who merely seems strong in public. No matter what, though, the new process has “raised the cost of making a poor appointment,” she said.

While most member states did pose similar questions to each of the nine candidates, a few were more blunt and directed. The representative from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, for example, asked UNDP Administrator Helen Clark, whose official nomination came in just a few days prior to the dialogues, how her leadership would bring a fresh perspective to the U.N.

“I have never been an establishment candidate for anything. I have come from the outside of everything I’ve done … as a woman breaking into a man's world which was politics in my country; as a woman becoming the first elected prime minister, [and the first woman appointed as administrator of UNDP],” the official nominee of New Zealand said in response.

And Saudi Arabia was quick to address Vesna Pusic after the Croatian diplomat shared her views on LGBT rights, highlighting her supposed “attitude” toward the U.N. as an institution and to its members, and cautioned her against “any attempt for the imposition of social values that are not internationally accepted, and that are not commonly recognized on the entire system.”

In a show of diplomacy, but without backing down from her statements, Pusic, after taking a deep breath, argued she has never in her 63 years of existence seen an organization or individual not flawed, adding later that her knowing and acknowledging these flaws makes her even more qualified for the job.

She also said it is “futile” for the U.N. to think it could or should impose social values unaccepted in some societies, but noted that bringing a contentious issue to the forefront of talks doesn’t pose any threat to anybody, but rather serves as “food for thought.”

Such exchanges, though rare, gave both the public and member states insights on candidates’ diplomatic skills, Goldberg said — although a two-hour interview already provides a good indication of how well they do under pressure, how effective they are as communicators, and how articulate they are in addressing member state queries, he noted.

Left unsaid

Despite the wide range of topics discussed during the dialogues, certain subjects were barely mentioned, or perhaps, as Goldberg put it, “avoided.”

“No one asked the candidates on what they are going to do on Syria,” for example, noted the U.N. blogger and host of podcast Global Dispatches.

He recalled a question from Ukraine addressed to UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova on her plans regarding the situation in the Crimea; the senior official failed to respond to it due to time restrictions.

The next UN secretary-general: A candidate vision cheat sheet

Devex combed through each secretary-general candidate’s vision statement to bring you a brief look at how each plans to address some of the important issues facing the world — and particularly the U.N. — today.

The open dialogue has been a “great first step” for the secretary-general selection process, but most of the issues candidates publicly addressed are, unsurprisingly, those that most countries already agree on or approve of, Mala Kumar, a global development professional with a focus on information and communication technology and former U.N. staffer, told Devex.

“As anyone who has worked in the U.N. system knows, that is a narrow set of topics,” she said.

Some sensitive issues did come to the fore, though. Palestine and the Middle Eastern block repeatedly pressed candidates on how they plan to move toward bringing a peaceful solution in the territories. A representative from Syria questioned Natalia Gherman, former deputy prime minister of Moldova, on her vision on implementing the U.N. charter that calls for respecting state sovereignty and which says the body does not have any authority in intervening in a state’s domestic affairs.

The U.N.’s liability for deaths associated with the cholera outbreak in Haiti was also brought to the floor, a question former U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres categorized as “complex.”

“The U.N. will be facing in several circumstances the question on how to be able to preserve diplomatic immunity, but at the same time to guarantee there is no impunity,” the official candidate of Portugal said.

When it comes to sexual exploitation by U.N. troops, the U.N. must be absolute in its decision to banish the perpetrators and extend support to victims, he said.

Member states and candidates also conducted several exchanges on the Secretariat’s reform, and on communications. But not much was said on how the next secretary-general plans to attract and retain younger talent, and what, if elected, their policies will be on the use of digital technology — topics, Kumar suggested, that candidates should address in a future forum.

Ideas for improving gender equality in the world outside U.N. walls was also fairly thin, 1 for 7 Billion Campaign’s Samarasinghe told Devex, and candidates missed the opportunity to give the public a taste of how they would use the secretary-general’s toolbox — like moral authority and convening power — to further an issue such as women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.

States might do well next time, she added, to approach this more like a job interview and less like a speaker event.

What topics were you expecting but were not raised or discussed at the informal dialogues? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

Jenny lei ravelo 400x400
Jenny Lei Ravelo@JennyLeiRavelo

Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex senior reporter based in Manila. Since 2011, she has covered a wide range of development and humanitarian aid issues, from leadership and policy changes at DfID to the logistical and security impediments faced by international and local aid responders in disaster-prone and conflict-affected countries in Africa and Asia. Her interests include global health and the analysis of aid challenges and trends in sub-Saharan Africa.


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